Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues

1 Comment

Holding Private Military Security Contractors Accountable, Part I

Lindsay Stallings

What is the role of private military security contractors (PMSC) in international war today? At the beginning of the War on Terror there were an innumerable amount of private security personnel working for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. On October 23, 2014, a jury convicted four former Blackwater (now known as Academi) security personnel of first degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and using military firearms in the commission of a felony.[1] These convictions send a message that the actions of PMSCs can incur criminal liability for their actions.

The role PMSCs play in international conflicts is very important. They often do work that active duty military cannot do because of various international law constraints, they often have military training themselves, but are often not held by the same international law standards due to the status of forces agreements (SOFA) that they operate under in the host country. These agreements often afford PMSCs immunity under the domestic laws of the host country. This case featuring the four former Blackwater operatives is of great importance because it is the first instance that puts limits on the activities of the PMSC’s. 

KHALID MOHAMMED/AP - An Iraqi traffic policeman inspects a car destroyed by a Blackwater security detail in al-Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Iraq in 2007. A federal jury in Washington convicted four former Blackwater security guards on trial in the shootings of more than 30 Iraqi citizens in the heart of Baghdad.

An Iraqi traffic policeman inspects a car destroyed by a Blackwater security detail in al-Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Iraq in 2007. A federal jury in Washington convicted four former Blackwater security guards on trial in the shootings of more than 30 Iraqi citizens in the heart of Baghdad.

Condoning their Behavior?

In 2007 four Blackwater operatives killed 14 unarmed Iraqi’s, largely women and children. At the time of the incident the US refused to allow the Blackwater employees to be tried by the Iraqi justice system. They were brought back to the US to stand trial here instead. The first trial was dismissed by the judge based on the unconstitutional collection of evidence.[2] In terms of US-Iraqi diplomatic relations the mistrial was the second blow. First, the US protected the Blackwater employees by bringing them back to the US for trial. Second, when they did face trial, it was inconclusive. To the Iraqis this likely seemed as if the US was condoning the Blackwater employee’s actions, as there was no justice for those that were killed.[3]

At the conclusion of the second trial on October 22, 2014, there was little rebounding from the presumption that the US did not really intend to punish the Blackwater employees. In response to this daunting assertion, US attorney in Washington, DC said that this verdict “is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war.”[4] Holding these security contractors accountable, even seven years later, will hopefully bridge the diplomatic differences exacerbated by this incident.[5]

Former Blackwater Worldwide security guard Nick Slatter, second from left, and Donald Ball, third from left, arrive with their lawyers at the U.S. District Court before surrendering to authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, in Dec. 2008.

Former Blackwater Worldwide security guard Nick Slatter, second from left, and Donald Ball, third from left, arrive with their lawyers at the U.S. District Court before surrendering to authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, in Dec. 2008.

What Role Will PMSCs Play in International Conflicts in the Future?

The true question is what legal status should PMSCs have in future international  and non-international armed conflicts?

In this case, the lack of international legal status is likely what caused the most diplomatic strife. These men are American citizens, but they are not American military. They do not report to the Department of Defense, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the US enters into agreements with the host government that waives the applicability of host country domestic law for their actions. PMSCs are private American citizens employed by the Department of State. PMSCs operate in a legal vacuum. Prior to these convictions, legal precedent was unclear as to what law applied to private citizens committing criminal acts in foreign lands. There is still not a clear legal direction as to what status PMSCs hold when they are acting in a foreign country. This could be further muddled if distinguishing between the types of conflicts that PMSCs are participating in, whether or not they are working overtly or covertly, and who has hired them (the United States government or other nations). In the second installment of this blog post, however, I will delve further into the legal status PMSC’s should have when acting within various types of international conflicts based on the legal precedent set by this case.

While legal precedent is important, it sometimes works much slower in the real world than public policy could work. The Iraqis doubted the US commitment to bringing the Blackwater employees to justice for their attack on unarmed Iraqi civilians. This ruling is a palpable step towards establishing a barrier between acceptable and unacceptable behavior of private citizens acting in a war zone. Although the Iraqis may not have their full faith in the US justice system restored after waiting seven years for a ruling, this is indeed a positive step in showing the world that we are willing to hold these private citizens accountable for their actions. This could, and hopefully does, show the world that the US does not think it is completely above the law – foreign or domestic.


Legal precedent is important and actively developing due, in large part, to this case. In the meantime, the evolving public policy will hopefully calm any remaining diplomatic strain stemming from this incident. Further, it should remind the international community that the US is taking responsibility for the actions of their PMSCs and, while it took some time in this case, impunity will not carry on into the future.

In Part Two of this blog post I will discuss the legal standards that should be applied to PMSCs in different types of international conflicts.

Lindsay Stallings is third year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, planning to graduate in May 2015 with a J.D. and concentration in International Law. She graduated from The Ohio State University in June of 2011 with a Bachelors of Science in Political Science with minors in Sociology and International Studies. She has also studied  Spanish and Arabic language and culture extensively. While at The Ohio State University she was a member of the International Affairs Scholars program, through which she studied abroad in Bulgaria. She was active in the Undergraduate Student Government and was a member of various academic and student life university-level committees.

Her primary interests are international law, national security, and U.S. Military and diplomatic policies. Through her coursework and relationships with our international law faculty she has developed a more focused interest in the policies surrounding international conflict and the capabilities of international courts. Lindsay currently serves as the Careers Director on the International Law Society and is a Staff Editor on the Journal of International Law. Her legal coursework and extracurricular activities have given her the opportunity to mold her passion for cultural studies and problem solving into an exciting international legal career.

[1] Justine Drennan, Four Blackwater Guards Convicted of Killing 14 Unarmed Iraqis, Oct. 23, 2014 http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/10/22/four_blackwater_guards_convicted_of_killing_14_unarmed_iraqis.

[2] Dwyer Arce, Federal judge dismissed charges against indicted Blackwater guards, Jan. 1, 2010 http://jurist.org/paperchase/2010/01/federal-judge-dismisses-charges-against.php.

[3] Mary Casey, U.S. Jury Convicts Four Former Blackwater Guards in 2007 Killings, Oct. 23, 2014 http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/10/23/us_jury_convicts_four_former_blackwater_guards_in_2007_killings

[4] Id.

[5] Matt Apuzzo, Blackwater Guards Found Guilty in 2007 Iraq Killings, Oct. 22, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/23/us/blackwater-verdict.html?ref=middleeast&_r=0.

Leave a comment

Terror Victims’ Pursuit of Justice and the Necessary Limitations of Courts

Clark Smith

In a decision last month that reverberated most through the international banking community, a Brooklyn jury in a federal trial held liable Arab Bank for “providing material support to Hamas.”  In Linde v. Arab Bank, families of a number of American victims of terror attacks in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank during Palestinian uprisings from 2001 to 2004 were pitted against an international bank with branches in those areas.  Filing suit in 2004, the victims’ families accused Amman-based Arab Bank of knowingly assisting Hamas financing a “death and dismemberment benefit plan” for martyrs and their families.  The case itself was described by lawyers as significant because it was the first civil case pertaining to terror financing to reach trial in a US court.  Despite the outcome, and noting that damages have yet to be addressed, attorneys for Arab Bank predict the verdict will be overturned on appeal due to errors pertaining to, among other things, the threat of sanctions against a foreign bank for failing to turn over lawfully private customer data.  In addition to the concerns of the international banking community, the verdict also raises questions about the impact to US intelligence efforts in tracking terrorist actions via their financial activities and to the President’s ability to carry out foreign affairs without interference from the Article III judiciary.


Since 9/11, the financial industries, indeed many technology-based data transfer industries, have stepped up their cooperation with governments’ anti-terror efforts.  But this verdict could lead to US-based banks severing relationships with foreign banks and customers, thus increasing the challenge to intelligence and other national security organizations in tracking terrorists’ financial networks.  Banking industry officials point out that the verdict may lead to US banks limiting risk by limiting business in designated regions.  The market for such illicit services will not diminish, however, but instead be driven deeper underground where they become much more difficult, and require more resources, to track.  Prudently, banks are likely to await the outcome of the appeal before taking specific actions to limit their risk.  But while governments’ ability to successfully track terrorists’ illicit financial networks is also at risk, a likely greater concern is the President’s ability to carry out the nation’s foreign affairs reasonably unimpeded.

Financial District And Banks In Jordanian Capital

While Arab Bank intends to address a number of substantive errors on appeal, their primary complaint was their inability to present a proper defense after being sanctioned for refusing to provide customer records protected by Jordan’s privacy laws.  The judge further permitted jurors to infer from the bank’s refusal to violate the Jordanian privacy laws that Arab Bank knowingly and willfully aided terrorists.  The State Department had urged the White House to support Arab Bank’s position in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, asserting that forcing the bank to proceed under the sanctions put at risk a number of US foreign policy goals, including Middle East peace efforts.  Although the White House ultimately asked the Court not to review the issue, the Solicitor General’s amicus brief pointed to a number of lower court errors in their analysis which could undermine the President’s ability to carry out foreign affairs.

“The lower courts erred in suggesting that petitioner’s reliance on foreign bank secrecy laws in this private action did not reflect good faith simply because petitioner previously produced some of the documents to the Departments of the Treasury and Justice.  That reasoning fails to account for the distinct United States and foreign interests implicated when the government, as opposed to a private party, seeks disclosure.  It also threatens to undermine important United States [] national-security interests by deterring private entities and foreign jurisdictions from cooperating with government requests.  The United States has a compelling sovereign interest in obtaining documents located abroad for use in [] proceedings through which the government [] protects the Nation.  When it decides whether to seek documents assertively covered by foreign bank secrecy laws, the government balances the need for the information sought and the public interest in the investigation against the interests of the foreign jurisdictions where the information is located and any potential consequences for our foreign relations.”

The exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington

Article III of the Constitution does provide that judicial power extends to various enumerated “cases and controversies,” some of which will certainly relate to foreign affairs.  But past Court opinions have acknowledged the Article III courts’ “customary policy of deference to the President in matters of foreign affairs.”  As the Solicitor General points out, courts should weigh the interests of private citizens’ claims against the interests of the US in conducting the nation’s foreign affairs.   But in so weighing such matters, courts should not invade this province of the Executive.

This case, weighing private citizens’ interests against those of the Administration in carrying out its foreign policy, will certainly be worth following on appeal.  In the unlikely event that the decision is upheld, the effects on national security and broader foreign policy interests could have far-reaching consequences on how the US engages abroad, friend and foe alike.


Clark Smith is a third-year law student pursuing a concentration in International Law. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Political Science and International Relations. In addition to being a Student Fellow, he is the Submissions Editor for the Journal of International Law. His previous experience includes work in both security and policy and his previous overseas postings include Western Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia. His professional interests include international development.